Schools have ‘no legal basis’ to force students to attend religion classes

Campaigners say legal advice empowers parents to protect their children’s rights

Campaigners argue that children in State-funded schools  face obstacles exercising their right to opt out of religious instruction. Photograph: iStock

Campaigners argue that children in State-funded schools face obstacles exercising their right to opt out of religious instruction. Photograph: iStock

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Schools have no legal basis to compel students to attend religious instruction classes, according to a report to be published this week.

Atheist Ireland has sent a 21-page legal opinion to the Department of Education on the right to opt out of religious instruction under provisions contained in the Constitution.

The group has long maintained that children in many State-funded schools are either forced to attend religious instruction or face obstacles in exercising their right to opt out of these classes. The legal opinion by barrister James Kane states that pupils have a right to not attend religious instruction, under article 44.2.4 of the Constitution.

Mr Kane’s view is that schools are obliged to use their State funding to facilitate this right which encompasses, at the very least, the right to leave the classroom during religious instruction while remaining supervised. The document states that there is “decent legal argument” that these pupils must be taught another subject.

The legal opinion also says that the State-approved religion course for Junior Cycle students was shaped with input from religious bodies who, in turn, designed guidelines for the supplementation of this course with Catholic faith formation and development.

“It is impossible in those circumstances to see any justification whatsoever for withholding the right of a student to opt out of such a course,” it states.

“Teaching Catholic instruction during the State religion syllabus, without offering a supervised opt out, represents an unlawful, systematic and stark attack on the right to not attend religious instruction in State-funded schools.”

Jane Donnelly of Atheist Ireland said the legal opinion will empower atheist and secular parents to exercise their right for their children to not attend religious instruction classes.

“In the past, most Irish schools simply coerced children to attend these classes. Since Atheist Ireland highlighted the right to not attend, many schools have instead put obstacles in the way of not attending,” she said.

Ms Donnelly said in many cases Catholic schools say students can sit at the back of the religion class due to resource shortages, while Education and Training Board schools maintain that students must attend religion class if they are teaching about more than one faith.

“This legal opinion shows that these excuses have no legal standing. You have the right to not attend religious instruction, whether it is about one religion or many religions, and your school must at a minimum supervise you and ideally give you another subject within their existing resources,” she said.

“This is a constitutional right. It is not up to schools or even the Department of Education to decide how you exercise it. Your child does not have to attend classes that you reasonably believe are inconsistent with your atheist or humanist convictions.”

Principals in a number of Catholic schools, however, insist they are highly inclusive and seek to integrate students from all faith traditions and none.

They point to the Economic and Social Research Institute which has found an “overwhelming majority of parents and students find their schools to be well-managed and welcoming”.

The department has also said that under the Constitution and the Education Act of 1998, parents have a right to have their children opt out of religion classes if they wish. However, State-run secondary schools are refusing to implement a department directive aimed at protecting the rights of students who opt out of religious instruction by offering them alternative tuition. These schools say they do not have resources to provide alternative tuition.

Atheist Ireland said it will continue to assist parents to exercise their constitutional rights in Irish schools as part of its campaign for a secular education system.